US Nukes 1

U.S. Strategic Nuclear Policy: A Video History, 1945-2004

Sandia Labs Historical Video Documents History of U.S. Strategic Nuclear Policy

Interviewees include Robert McNamara, Brent Scowcroft, James Schlesinger and Last Strategic Air Commander-in-Chief Lee Butler. Includes Revelations on “Out of Control” Nuclear Targeting During the 1980s.

National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 361

Disk 1, 1945-1954: Chapters 1 through 9

These chapters cover the story of nuclear weapons policy from the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki to the emergence of “massive retaliation” during the first years of the Eisenhower Administration. Besides the atomic bombings, some of the key moments in the chapters are the Berlin Crisis (1948), the origins of nuclear deterrence policy, the impact of the Soviet atomic test (1949) and the Korean War, Eisenhower’s “Basic National Security Policy” the development of thermonuclear weapons and the implications for “nuclear plenty.”

U.S. Army Air Force bombing operations during World War II usefully frame the early chapters, with Lynn Eden and Robert McNamara explaining how they informed nuclear strategy, including basic concepts of deterrence. For example, Eden discusses the impact of World War II on target categories and the calculation bombing damage, with blast effects becoming the chief measure of destruction. Taking the generally accepted view that the fire bombings of Japanese of Tokyo helped to legitimate the strategy of atomic strikes against more Japanese cities, the narrative treats the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki as a “culmination.” According to George Quester, the “basis of deterrence” can be found in the atomic bombings. He argues that some Japanese government officials would have said to themselves, “I can’t stand seeing that many people killed.” In other words, the prospect of further destruction deterred Tokyo from continuing the war.

The coverage of the atomic bombings includes an oversight and an error. The only observation about the impact of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings is Admiral Wertheim’s assertion that they were decisive for ending World War II in the Pacific–“tipped the scale” as he put it. Wertheim is entitled to his opinion, but letting his words shape the narrative makes one wonder what happened to the Soviet declaration of war on Japan, 8 August 1945, Historical debate continues over what exactly led to the surrender of Japan, but no one disagrees that the Soviet declaration had a critically important impact1 and it should have been mentioned to avoid perpetuating a myth. An error creeps in when the narrator refers to—and the viewer sees—a memorandum from Truman to Secretary of War Stimson, 31 July 1945, as the “release order” for the use of the bombs. This memorandum was, in fact, a reference to a press release that was to be issued after the first bomb was detonated.2

To put the history of U.S. nuclear strategy in context, the film’s narrator points to three major variables. The first is the impact of successive presidential administrations. The second is the pressure caused by changing world events. The third is the evolutionary development of nuclear weapons systems. These are relevant to understanding the history, but the editor could have taken into account an additional variable: the concepts of national security that influenced policymakers and helped shaped their decisions. While a film like this cannot go into this matter very deeply, it could have acknowledged the ideological, economic, and strategic concerns that made U.S. top officials believe that the United States had to play a major role in world politics and which shaped the diplomatic and military strategies of presidential administrations throughout the Cold War. Indeed, without taking into account the strategic interests which U.S. policymakers had already fought world wars to secure it is difficult to understand why they would even consider making the threats that comprised nuclear deterrence.3

On the context for nuclear policy immediately after World War II, Paul Boyer helpfully captures the “ambivalence” of U.S. security policy and diplomacy. That the U.S only had a handful of “functional” nuclear weapons during 1945-1947 exemplified the ambivalence. So did the Truman administration’s proposals for international control of atomic energy, although the degree to which the Baruch Plan set back the possibility of control goes unmentioned.4

David Holloway makes fine contributions on Stalin and Soviet policy, but the narrative on the origins and early phases of the Cold War is workmanlike and traditional. It is largely a story of Soviet expansion with little hint of the considerations (concern about European stability and other national security objectives) that led the Truman administration to engage in a Cold War with the Soviet Union. The coverage of nuclear strategy is stronger, with the Berlin crisis treated as a “driver” (and as David Holloway explains, Stalin’s reaction to Western moves to create a separate West German state). The emergence of the Strategic Air Command as a force that was being prepared to fight a nuclear war gets appropriate weight as does the key role of General Curtis LeMay in building the new organization.

The discussion of early nuclear planning is fascinating and so are the details on the early war plans–Half-Moon and Offtackle, and their relationship to World War II targeting. Lynn Eden explains the major target categories (Bravo: nuclear forces, Delta: urban-industrial, and Romeo: mobilization capabilities), although her explanation should have been used in a post-1950 context when those categories became integral to SAC planning. The chapter on “How Much is Enough for Deterrence” shows how “keeping ahead” of Moscow became important and why momentum for the H-bomb decision became compelling at the White House level.

The Korean War and the decisions on NSC 68 increased pressure for “Building the ‘Super.'” John S. Foster credits Edward Teller as the “driving force” in the thermonuclear weapons program, although he does not show how stymied Teller and the H-bomb project were before Stanislas Ulam introduced the concept of compressing deuterium. Nevertheless, Ulam’s contribution is made clear enough. The major focus is not on the inventors, but the impact of the H-bomb on the weapons stockpile. As Richard Garwin points out, with the H-bomb it became “possible to have vastly more weapons with a limited stock of “fissional material. The film footage of H-bomb tests illustrates their terrifying power, but what nuclear planners thought they would do does not get clear treatment. Nevertheless, a major Project RAND report declared that “thermonuclear weapons will be killers and fantastically destructive.” “The heat will be sufficient to kill people and start fires miles from the point of burst.”5

The discussion of “Basic National Security Policy” and nuclear deterrence during the Eisenhower administration cites NSC 162 for the position that nuclear weapons were “available for use as other weapons.” This amounted to a repudiation of Truman’s firm conviction that the atomic bomb was an “an instrument of terror and a weapon of last resort.” Truman’s post-Nagasaki revulsion to nuclear weapons use is not spelled out very sharply except for references to his “apprehension” and his “personal understanding of the damage” that nuclear weapons would do. Nevertheless, Truman’s thinking would become typical as a “taboo” against nuclear use became institutionalized owing to the impact of world and domestic opinion, alliance politics, and the moral concerns of policymakers. Indeed, by the end of the 1950s, a more experienced Eisenhower had come to believe that nuclear weapons could not be used as “other weapons.” As he put it in 1958, “when you use nuclear weapons you cross a completely different line.”6


1The argument has been over the importance of the Soviet declaration of war compared to the atomic bombings. See Tsuyoshi Hasegawa, Racing the Enemy: Stalin, Truman, and the Surrender of Japan (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2005) and Hasegawa, ed., The End of the Pacific War: Reappraisals (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2007).
2Sean L. Malloy, Atomic Tragedy: Henry L. Stimson and the Decision to Use the Bomb Against Japan (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2008), 217, note 68.
3See, for example, Melvyn P. Leffler, A Preponderance of Power: National Security, the Truman Administration, and the Cold War (Stanford, Stanford University Press, 1992) and Walter LaFeber, America, Russia and the Cold War, 1945-2000 (New York; McGraw Hill, 2002).
4See James. G. Hershberg, James B. Conant: From Harvard to Hiroshima and the Making of the Nuclear Age (New York: Knopf., 1993): 263-269
5RAND Corporation, “Implications of Large-Yield Nuclear Weapons,” 10 July 1952, copy on Digital National Security Archive.
6Matthew Jones, After Hiroshima the United States, Race, and Nuclear Weapons in Asia, 1945-1965 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 271, 277. For the nuclear taboo more generally, see Nina Tannenwald, The Nuclear Taboo: The United States and the Non-Use of Nuclear Weapons Since 1945 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009).

These materials are reproduced from with the permission of the National Security Archive.